Don’t Know Much About History
April 2, 2014
Here, from a book entitled Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, is a bit history that at least I was never introduced to in my schooling. It involves an optional essay question on a 1959 English aptitude test for those who were applying to the University of California. That question was: “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?”
Now, this question, thanks to the help a member of the American Legion, which organization was working with the FBI at that time to identify those who constituted a threat to national security, came to the attention of the FBI, making J. Edgar Hoover livid. “He viewed the question not only as subversive but as an attack on the FBI – and he took any attack on the bureau personally. His hand passed quickly across the memo as he scrawled….: ‘We really should stir up as many protests as possible.’” [p. 64] And Hoover’s assistant and close confidant, Tolson, assigned this matter to on “Deke” DeLoach, who headed what was called “the Crime Records Division” but was in fact the bureau’s public relations appendage.
To fulfill his responsibilities in this matter, DeLoach sent a letter to the American Legion’s national commander, which he, the commander, was to pretend he had written himself and send it to the chancellor at UCLA, protesting the question. DeLoach also contacted the chief of Hearst Newspapers’ Washington, D.C. bureau and called upon him to attack the university for allowing such a question to be used on the test. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, owned by the Hearst chain, promptly published a story repeating allegations of a “vicious communist propaganda scheme” and an editorial critical of the university. The FBI also made use of the House Un-American Activities Committee as well as the Los Angeles Archdiocese to publicly condemn the question.
The FBI then proceeded to try to determine who was responsible for the question itself but pretty much came up empty. In the course if its efforts, however, it scrutinized professors at UCLA and USC, as well as the essays written in response to this question. The essays were evenly split between those for and against the FBI and pass rates were virtually the same.
Hoover was very much pleased with the bureau’s efforts to stir up protests to this question and sent Vice President Richard Nixon a letter in which he wrote: “A storm of protest immediately arose in many parts of the state against this viciously misleading question….The minds of young students were being impregnated with the complete falsehood under the guise of truth.”
It is fortunate that Hoover and the FBI were so attuned to the threats to national security in those times. We can only hope there are some today who are also so attuned to those threats!